The Future of Funk in a Pacified Rio

Now that the police have occupied Rio and cut the music, “it sounds like a cemetery here. It’s a more suave form of dictatorship.”

It has been seven years since the first time I climbed the 100-odd steps separating Copacabana from Cantagalo, a hillside favela perched just behind the Copa high-rises, to attend a baile funk. Flash forward to the last Saturday in April 2012, when I made the familiar ascent amongst surroundings that were unthinkable as recently as 2008. The dead-end street that led to the staircase is now home to a gleaming subway station and a bike-share rack of bright orange two-wheelers. The staircase is now an elevator. The gang graffiti hadn’t entirely been erased, but the gun-toting teenagers that sprayed it are long gone and uniformed, armed police officers have taken their place. In December 2009, an elite squad of military police, the feared BOPE, took over Cantagalo and neighboring Pavão/Pavãozinho as part of the ongoing Pacifying Police Units program, universally known in Rio by the acronym UPP. Needless to say, a lot has changed in Rio, in favelas, and by extension in funk, in the interim.

Funk carioca, forever known as “baile funk” in the non-Brazilian blogosphere, was in its boom time back in 2006 when I was regularly trekking up to Cantagalo for the heaviest bass imaginable from one, two, sometimes three (as was the case during Carnival 2008) sound systems in the neighborhood quadra, a kind of multipurpose concrete gymnasium that plays host to bailes, samba school rehearsals, indoor soccer, and community events. At the time, sensationalist headlines like “Coke. Guns. Booty. Beats” ruled the online airwaves. Germany’s Man Recordings and the US’s Mad Decent and Flamin Hotz Records (full disclosure: I worked for FHZ) all made efforts to showcase and interpret—with more or less success—the nu whirld agglomeration of pirated software reprogramming Miami bass loops alongside the most incongruous grab bag of samples imaginable, all laced with fierce, feedback-laden Portuguese vocals by aspiring favela superstars.

Nowadays, the three letters “UPP” have been on every carioca’s lips since the program began in 2008 as an attempt to wrest control of highly visible favelas—read: near rich neighborhoods, tourist attractions, and sports facilities for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics—from the hands of narco-trafficking organizations. Rio, where a certain kind of brutal favela life became internationally recognized through the 2002 film City of God, was the second city to be “pacified” in February 2009. UPP remains polemical. Conservative elites endorse it wholeheartedly, while human rights activists are decidedly more tepid. Periodic reports of abuses leak out, and promised social interventions have yet to arrive with the same show of force as the police.

But UPP has had one largely indisputable impact: shutting down bailes. When the cops move in for good, they most definitely pull the plug on the sound system for any “community baile” financed by local narco-traffickers. The rub is that it also signals the end of a free party for hundreds, if not thousands, of local youth who have nothing to do with the drug trade and just want to have a good time in their own neighborhood.  Already, it has led to conflicts with police. In August of 2012, angry funkeiros threw bottles and rocks at cops who cut the sound on a baile that broke the 2 a.m. curfew. In the wee hours of Good Friday, a baile in Rocinha—Rio’s largest favela and one undergoing a particularly uneasy transition—became another flashpoint when crowds scuffled with police and set piles of trash on fire. Nine have been murdered, including one police officer, the first pacification cop killed in the line of duty since the military led the invasion of Rocinha that November.

Funk has seen several cycles of discrimination and acceptance since it emerged from Rio’s poor north side and suburbs in the late 1970s and 1980s, as sound clashes playing American funk, soul, disco, and early house, techno, and hip-hop morphed into a homegrown style once sampling technology arrived in Brazil. Even after funk largely fell off the radar north of the equator following its first international boom, the scene stayed strong in Rio, where it was only the upper echelon of MCs and DJs who were interacting much outside the usual baile circuit anyway. One such exceptional case, DJ Sany of the Pitbull Sound System, was almost always in command on Friday nights in Cantagalo. By June 2009, it had become professionally untenable for him to jet in from a European festival just in time to switch from gringo-friendly tracks for the overseas crowd to the raw tracks that made Cantagalo pop off until dawn, especially once the drug trade took a front-and-center role, selling drugs on the dance floor instead of in back alleys and encouraging gangsters to bring their guns inside the party.

Sany Pitbull was definitely in Cantagalo and behind the decks on that spring Saturday in 2012, however, as he showed his support for a funk “roda,” or freestyle jam, a term more often used to describe a samba or capoeira session than funk.  The roda was organized by APAFunk, the Association of Funk Professionals and Friends, led by MC Leonardo of “Rap das Armas” fame.

The 1995 tune’s onomatopoeic chorus of “Parapapapapapapapapapa” borrows the vocal notes from The Outfield’s “Your Love” while sampling “Planet Funk” and “Push It,” illustrating perfectly the unintentionally brilliant, lost-in-translation cultural cannibalism that gives funk much of its charm. Almost fifteen years later, the song reemerged in 2009 with the Brazilian hit film Tropa de Elite, giving MC Leonardo and his brother MC Júnior a new, late-career lease on life. The track ricocheted across Europe in unexpectedly remixed fashions, ultimately arriving at the European Top 100 charts and, more depressingly, on Sweden’s version of “Dancing With the Stars” in a lounge-singer cover inaccurately labeled as samba. The Euroclub hit version was recorded by fellow MCs Cidinho and Doca, whose own claim to fame is 1993’s “Rap da Felicidade” and the uplifting refrain (“I only want to be happy, to walk peacefully in the favela where I was born”) that made it a Brazilian national hit. In a fitting coda, Leonardo and Júnior took the makeshift stage at the funk roda in Cantagalo and belted out their own version.

APAFunk organized the roda, which took place on the street in the shadow of the quadra where the baile had once been held. For several months last year, the Cantagalo UPP permitted bailes every Friday night as usual, though organizers charged admission (now that the drug trade was no longer financing the operation), kept the sound much lower than usual, and closed at 2 a.m.—when most clubs and bars in Rio go until the last customer leaves. The Piratão Sound System took over from Pitbull, with inferior equipment further compounded by the harsh sound restrictions, and the baile turned into a favela middle-school mixer. Anyone older and with a few extra reais to afford a night out went elsewhere for their funk fix.

Now even that detoothed baile had gotten the cabash under the auspices of Resolution 013, which Rio State Secretary of Security and architect of the UPP project, José Mariano Beltrame, signed back in 2007 and based on previous decrees dating from the early 2000s. As a statewide ordinance, it sets an unreasonably high and completely nonsensical threshold for cultural events in an environment like a favela. The Center for Technology and Society at the Rio Law School of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), which has been working with APAFunk to disentangle the legal barriers to bailes, dug through the resolution and discovered that it requires metal detectors, security, portable toilets, parking, approval from local firefighters, and a whole host of bureaucratic morass that runs counterintuitive to the spirit and custom of bailes. In most cases, they draw their patrons from within the favela, who care more about whether or not the sound system works, if the DJs and MCs are any good, and how much beer there is on hand.

Unfortunately, 013 is selectively wielded by the UPP and largely depends on the personality of the captain in that favela, leading to a kind of capriciousness depressingly similar to the era of the narco-traffickers, when the boss’s word was law. The subjectivity is frustrating to Sany, who asked me during a set break, “Why can Santa Marta and Tabajares [two other favelas a couple miles away] throw bailes but Cantagalo can’t?  It all depends on the commander.”  Cíntia Paula Luna, president of the Residents Association of Fogueteiro—a favela that gets a shout out from Sany Pitbull in the main baile scene of Favela on Blasttold me point blank:

The UPP oppresses way more than the gangs ever did. Several businesses have gone bankrupt here, especially bars, you can’t even turn on the radio! It sounds like a cemetery here now. It’s a more suave form of dictatorship.

The Cantagalo roda—cleared with the police, who kept a safe but watchful distance—had a lively community spirit for a place that hasn’t heard a lot of amplified funk lately. A local duo got the biggest love from the crowd, an unexpected alliance of residents and university-aged leftist sympathizers handing out flyers for the anti-013 petition. MC Leonardo gave a few stem-winders in between sets, rehashing much of the argument he made when I interviewed him at the APAFunk office in downtown Rio. He himself has radicalized, now writing a column for the socialist magazine Caros Amigos (Dear Friends) on social and political topics. He opened our interview with a bold declaration: “The UPP is a threat to a democratic state of rights.” While he isn’t opposed to police in favelas, much to the contrary, his main concern is that “culture has been thrown into the hands of the police.” Sany echoed this point backstage at the roda: “Funk isn’t a police matter, it’s a cultural matter.”

Moreover, this mantra is not just rhetoric, it’s the law. In September 2009, the state legislature of Rio de Janeiro repealed a law designed to crack down on bailes and raves—though Resolution 013, promulgated directly by the State Secretary of Security, does not need legislative approval—and passed the Lei Funk é Cultura, the Funk is Culture Law, which declared funk official cultural patrimony of the state of Rio. The law, more than a mere symbolic gesture, provided legal avenues through which to fight back against police repression. In a country that doles out loads of public money, it also meant that funk projects were eligible for state cultural funding for the first time, totaling R$500,000 ($300,000 USD) for producing albums, cutting music videos, and organizing activities that promote funk as a genre. Without the law, it’s doubtful that the Rio Funk Parade, a daylong downtown bass overload in late 2011—10 sound systems all at top volume—would have taken place.

Cultural victories aside, the legal battles continue. After rattling off an exhaustive history of legal restrictions on bailes since the early 90s, and the new legal steps that APAFunk has taken to press their case politically—thanks in part to this unlikely fusion of funkeiros and law students—MC Leonardo warned that without changes, the consequence would be “shutting down the largest cultural encounter in the city.” While APAFunk is still a minnow in the largely apolitical ocean of funk, it’s a significant step for a music culture that has long been considered purely hedonistic, the party-loving cousin of São Paulo’s über-conscious hip-hop scene.

Perhaps most tellingly, if all the restrictions remain in place, MC Leonardo prophesized, “Favela bailes will become the new samba-school rehearsal and cost R$40 [$25 USD].” Samba school rehearsals are considered a safe, culturally acceptable activity for tourists and middle-class cariocas alike, and are priced accordingly, while bailes have always been on the more “alternative” tourism beat, the nighttime version of a favela tour. While the ethnomusicological notion that “funk is the new samba” is often paraded to defend funk against its detractors (because it was born among the black poor of Rio, took refuge in favelas, and ultimately gained widespread acceptance) herein lies the flip side of going mainstream.

UPP and subsequent public infrastructure investments have slowly been making middle- and upper-class cariocas, as well as the ever-important gringo tourist, comfortable with climbing the Cantagalo steps (or nowadays taking the elevator), riding the Complexo do Alemão cable car, or cruising up the Santa Marta funicular to hang out with the Michael Jackson statue. The result has been a flurry of UPP-themed favela activities, from a recent organic food tasting to a favela restaurant competing in a citywide bar food contest to an upcoming literary festival to downhill mountain bike competitions.

Sifting through the ethics of transforming favelas into Rio’s new playground is a topic for another article, but when it comes to music, the trend certainly hasn’t abated: from new samba nights drawing an Ipanema-esque crowd to a favela jazz club to Casa Alto Vidigal, which has possibly the best view in Rio and has played host to all-vinyl roots reggae crew Digital Dubs, local dubstep promoters Wobble, and a host of other one-offs. But while the thrill of partying in a (safe) favela draws a more elite crowd, it also can create a space of exclusion within a community that has historically suffered tremendous social stigma. I watched a crowd of locals who couldn’t afford the R$15 ($9 USD) cover charge at Alto Vidigal turned away at a Digital Dubs party last October, and was not surprised to see a decidedly non-Vidigal crowd once I went inside myself.

As if unleashing a self-fulfilling prophecy, the very same night APAFunk held the Roda de Samba street protest, the Shake Your Quadra party charged a R$30 ($17 USD) cover in the nearby Tabajares favela—one where UPP has been more permissive of cultural events. Sany Pitbull, along with a mix of old- and new-school funk acts playing on the legendary Cashbox Sound System, were on the bill. I asked Sany about it, who said that a blend of locals and better-heeled outsiders was the goal.  They did offer a discount ticket for residents, and Damian Platt, author of Culture is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro, observed, “I did see a few locals and it was a good mix.”

Of course, a chic baile in a tony part of town is not the only option, as UPP is present in less than two dozen of Rio’s 700 favelas. True community bailes are still in effect, though moving further and further every year from downtown and the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. The current hot spot, judging from the thousands deep crowd and the triple threat of sound systems when I attended last November, is in the Nelson Mandela public housing complex, where funk crews take advantage of the massive central plaza, much larger than the public spaces usually found in favelas. From what I gathered, the upper-floor apartments that look over the plaza double as sky boxes where you can set up a private bar and take in the scene. Putaria, the raunchiest kind of funk, remains in control over proibidão, which big ups the local gangs and is probably the main reason the UPP is so eager to shut down bailes. Indeed, there is now anti-UPP proibidão, as I still can’t forget the echoes of “UPP filho da puta” (“UPP you sons of bitches”) blasting out of the now-pacified Mangueira baile last year. MC Tovi sums it up the best in the “Não entra aqui a UPP” (“UPP, don’t come in here”), the plaintive lyrics punctuated by a simple but effective commentary: “UPP é o caralho” (“UPP is fucking bullshit”).

In early April, the Operation Mandela Connection reportedly led to a police and narco-trafficker shootout that temporarily halted the nearby commuter rail, snarling the ride home for thousands. Mandela, part of the Manguinhos complex of favelas, seems a likely target in the near future for UPP. The baile’s days are probably numbered there too, with sound systems, DJs, and MCs migrating across the pockmarked urban landscape of Rio to find out where else they can blast the beats until the break of dawn.

It doesn’t help that funk is at something of a low point musically, lacking in new innovations, retreading aquecimentos (warm-ups) of repeated choruses rather than producing tracks with refrains, and coming up with increasingly dirty lyrics generally on the degrading-to-women side of things. Several MCs aren’t even recording phrases anymore, just nonsense words that serve as an inexplicable linguistic encouragement for popuzadas (big booties).

MC Leonardo agrees that this kind of funk is “horrible” and more politically conscious funk doesn’t get radio play. But, he cautions, “We can’t censor it. Funk reflects society, it isn’t the cause.” Even if funk is going through a tough moment in Rio, the whole catalogue is taking off across Brazil under the name eletrofunk, where classic tracks and new releases are getting remixed with usually mind-numbing but sometimes interesting, offbeat electro and house beats.

Meanwhile, the beatbox version of the tamborzão rhythm has become the centerpiece of a nationwide forró smash hit, “Tchu Tcha Tcha,” with a “sensual dance” that doesn’t particularly resemble the passinho footwork-ish moves that are de riguer in today’s bailes.

Pointedly, João Lucas and Marcelo’s lyrics claim that the “Tchu Tcha Tcha” is taking off all over Brazil—naming a half-dozen states, none of which include Rio. Funkeiros have reworked the tune, however, incorporating an original “tchu tcha tcha” beatbox and explicitly claiming that “everyone in the Rio baile funk / has already picked up” on the “sensual dance” of “Tchu Tcha Tcha.”

As for the world at large, it’s true that funk never quite took off in the US and has become instead a reference point as the “first ‘global ghetto groove.” It’s likely the combination of a number of factors, from the linguistic barrier to poor production quality, but most importantly to a lack of demographic support–Brazil’s immigrant population in the US was always small and is now shrinking as returning home  makes more economic sense. Outside of a handful of northeastern enclaves like Newark, parts of Queens, and a constellation of Massachusetts hot spots (Cambridge, Somerville, Hyannis, Framingham), there isn’t a critical mass to keep tamborzão bumping out of car speakers and onto the radio. Besides which, most immigrants to the US come from Minas Gerais—the state north of Rio—and funk isn’t necessarily their soundtrack like dancehall for Jamaicans or reggaeton for Puerto Ricans. While the Brazil Independence Day festival in Newark will definitely have a funk sound system, it’s still peanuts compared to the sound trucks at a Puerto Rican Day parade. But then, the city of Rio dwarfs the population of Puerto Rico, an easy reminder that Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world and a universe at that, can easily sustain a music scene without having much interest in overseas exposure.

Europe remains a different story, as the “Rap das Armas” fever suggests, though one hopes that a fresh injection from the source will help. Sany Pitbull is heading to London soon for the Rio Occupation, part of an Olympic cultural collaboration, but laments that it’s difficult to perform at a proper baile in his backyard. “The debate remains here,” he affirmed. “Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso have a funk track on her latest album. Why sell the music but not support it where it grew up?” When I asked MC Leonardo about funk abroad, he was equally focuses on the Rio reality. “What the gringo thinks isn’t so important,” he explained.  “We can’t make music thinking about the world, we have to make music thinking about the favela. It’s the favela that we need to resolve.”

It’s fitting, then, that Leonardo and Júnior took the stage at the Cantagalo roda de funk and launched into “Tá Tudo Errado” (It’s All Messed Up), which earned a privileged place on the soundtrack to Tropa de Elite 2, the 2010 sequel to the film that dusted off and relaunched “Rap das Armas.”  In it, Leonardo proclaims:

Sou favelado e exijo respeito / São só meus direitos que eu peço aqui / Pé na porta sem mandado / Tem que ser condenado / Não pode existir (I’m a favelado and I demand respect / All I am asking for are my rights / Busting down the door without a warrant / Needs to be condemned / It can’t happen).

With a lilting samba guitar over a tamborzão lacking the usual baile punch, it probably won’t end up being played at Mandela any time soon, or even Cantagalo if APAFunk gets the baile up and running again. But if they plug the sound system back in at the Cantagalo quadra, then the battle has already been won, and the war will most definitely continue.


Find more in Cluster Mag Issue 4: Parties